Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

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Raybo
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Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Raybo » Mon May 21, 2018 12:01 am

I’m sitting in a fabulous house in the Dolomite town of Venas di Cadore, about 15 miles south of Cortina in Northern Italy. There are stunning, bare rock peaks in every direction, though often obscured by clouds. I’ll end this tour in Venice on Tuesday.

I last wrote from Lake Bled in Slovenia. From there, I rode the short way to Lake Bohinj, following the Sava Bohinjka river. While I was warned that this was a dangerous road (and even took a hard, unstable detour to avoid some of it), it was a great ride. The river and valley it cut were were very pretty, surrounded by steep, tree-covered hills topped by clouds. One memorable scene was an onion-domed church in a wildflower-filled field backed by steep, green mountains.

The lake is oval shaped and much larger than Bled. It is surrounded by large mountains that dive right into the lake. At the west end of the lake is a waterfall, known in Slovenian as Spit Savica, which seems to pour out of a wall of rocks well above the lake. On the ride past the lake, the views of undisturbed forest, moss-covered boulders and water through the trees reminded me of driving in Yosemite Valley along the Merced River.

The next morning, I had to decide if the weather was good enough for me to ride over a 1200 meter pass to Kranjska Gora or ride back to Bled along the valley floor and follow a longer route. As I looked out in the morning, the valley was full of lingering fog but the sky looked blue above it, so the pass it would be.

There were two passes to get over. The first one was a steady grade on a deserted road with broad, mostly obscured vistas across to the snow-streaked peaks on the other side. I felt reasonably strong riding in the flat area after clearing the top. Then, the second climb started and it was much steeper. Oddly, I began seeing bike riders coasting down the hill, usually grinning. After I was passed by a couple Backroads van, I realized I was in a prime adventure biking (coasting?) area.

I was tired and the road was steep. I was stopping about every 200 yards to try and cool down the fire in my thighs. Eventually, I was down to every 100 yards. Feeling a bit ridiculous, I started walking up the incline to work a different set of muscles. Just then, a large number of Backroaders coasted by. I felt no shame.

After, finally, passing the second top, the steep (I saw an 18% grade sign) coast down had me shivering in my sweat-soaked wool jersey. I was seriously impressed when I coasted by two identically clad bike riders pushing up the hill. I also wondered if I had ascended an 18% grade.

At the bottom, I turned and rode through the Radovna Valley and along the river of the same name. Again, it was through a thick, uncut forest along a well-maintained bike path. Then, it started to rain; eventually, bucketing down. I tried to get under trees, but the rain was so intense that strategy soon failed. I waited under an extended eave of an old pumping station for the storm to pass. I left my somewhat sheltered spot after about 15 minutes, still riding in the rain.

There really is no way to stay dry in such an environment. As I rode, I felt my gloves, shoes, socks and jersey slowly soaking up water. Not my most joyous time riding a bicycle!

After a turn, while checking my map, a group of Germans rode up to confirm the correct turn. They zoomed past me, smiling and waving. After an unwelcome 12% climb, I was on the bike path into Kranjska Gora. I passed the Germans next to a Backroads van snacking and toweling off waving as if we were old friends.

The ride into Kranjska Gora was along a tree lined bike path that had a slight but steady grade. I was getting tired, but happy the rain had stopped. Just as I entered the village, I was passed by the Germans again. I kept asking “where is the van?” They all laughed.

My stop for the night was with Matej (Matt-ay), a couchsurfer who is a digital marketing consultant in Kranjska Gora. He lives in Ljubljana, but he stays in his office during the week to minimize commuting. His office, a large space that once held a boutique, is fitted with a kitchen, bedroom, shower, a couple toilets, a pool table, and large entertainment screen. There is a Chinese restaurant downstairs and a good sized grocery right next door. It seemed like a bit of bike touring heaven to me!

After his staff left for the day, he and I hit the Chinese place for dinner and then talked for a couple hours about him and me. He recently ran the successful election campaign of the municipality’s mayor and hopes to run a campaign in the next Presidential election. He is full of both ideas and enthusiasm and a great guy to spend time with. After dinner, his friend Matec (Mattez) came over and they played video soccer. The generated commentary was hilarious and I was happy watching them play. After an extra period, Matec took the honors.

Kranjska Gora is a small village in a ski (bare runs are visible in every hill side) and biking riding area whose main business is tourism. My route was to climb the famous Vršič (Ver-sitch) Pass, whose base is Kranjska Gora. The next morning I woke up to rain and low clouds that obscured any and all views.

Matej graciously offered me another night’s lodging. I looked forward to seeing his operation and over the course of a couple hours, I got to meet his local crew. I spent my time planning various routing options depending on the weather, which was unstable for the next several days.

I mapped half a dozen routes that would have taken me south toward Trieste, riding back into Slovenia, west into Northern Italy but not over the pass, and various routes on the other side of the pass. I wasn’t sure which ones I’d take, but felt better for the exercise. Frankly, it is a bit nerve-wracking to plan on the fly like this and I’d prefer not to have to do it under such time pressure.

That night, we were going to cook dinner and I went to the store to get ingredients, only to discover it closed. Instead, we ordered pizza at a local place to go. While we ate, Matej played a YouTube video of Jordan Peterson, a well spoken University of Toronto professor whose main theme seems to be measurable cognitive difference among sexes, races, and people and what that means for human society. He has a very hard edge and is difficult to listen to, though refuting his rhetoric is challenging. We also listened to an odd Slovenian band, Laibach, with very Aryan motifs and driving, interesting music. We watched their performance in North Korea, of all places.

Matec showed up and this time he ruled the soccer pitch winner something like 8 to 0. Another guy showed up and they played cards and I went to sleep.

The next morning, it was sunny, with wispy fog in the valley. The views of high mountains, which I now saw for the first time, were jaw-dropping. I got ready, said my heart-felt good-bye to Matej, and started the climb up the pass. I was stopping to take photos every minute. There was a stunning river view here, a waterfall there, then a lake in front of a snow-covered mountain. It was almost too much to absorb and taking the photos helped me cope with it all.

The climb is an 800 meter, thigh buster that climbs through forest with a constant view of sheer rock peaks shrouded in clouds and streaked with snow. Some of the dusting looked recent. The ascent is characterized by 24 numbered switchbacks paved with cobblestones. The grade wasn’t steady and a number of sections required sustained maximum effort to keep the bike upright. The cobblestones, tiny ups and downs really, were particularly unwelcome.

Someone had stolen the sign for the last (24) switchback, but there was one at the pass, which helped finalize the climb in some way. I rested looking down the other side and put on a couple layers of clothes for the descent. The exhaustion, elevation gain, and unbelievable beauty (there for me alone!) combined into some kind of body-mind condition that I experienced but can’t describe.

The bullet fast coast down has another 24 switchbacks, though, thankfully, without the cobblestones. The road crisscrossed a stream that fell straight down the mountain, creating waterfalls I’d pass after every 180 degree turn. The effect was magical. There also were a couple places the road had given way, was under repair, and required careful riding.

I was quickly past the major descent when I came along the Soča (Socha) river. The main attraction of this side of the pass is the Soča river valley. It is full of hiking trails, fast moving rivers, and wonderful views. I passed several cable bridges suspended over the river which required a bit of confidence to walk out on. But, the views made the swaying worth it!

My stop for the night was Bovec (Bo-vets). A cute town full of adventure outfitters and hikers taking a break. My rental had a kitchen and I cooked up a tasty dinner that fed my tired muscles.

The next day started off sunny and I decided to take the option that went toward the Dolomites. This route involved a much longer climb than the day before, though it peaked out lower. After finishing the coast down from Bovec, I began a long, hard climb up the side of a valley whose steep sides were carpeted with green. There was water dripping down every rock as I crawled past them and waterfalls, big and dribbling were around every turn. Waterfalls were so common, that I even stopped taking pictures of them!

This would be another two pass day. I reached the first top after about 90 minutes of grinding. After a gratuitous downhill, whose height I’d have to recapture, I passed the roaring Učja River and the border between Slovenia and Italy. I climbed up a ribbon of asphalt, no wider than a bike path past dozens of waterfalls. I didn’t see a single car for the entire climb.

I could hear a river, but not see it as the valley walls were steep and covered in green. The climb was relentless and I was again reduced to walking after many stops just to try and use some different muscles. I crested the pass two hours after passing the first top.

The downhill was incredibly steep and full of switchbacks. My forearms ached from squeezing the brakes on the way down. It was impossible to keep the bike under 20 MPH. It was a bit scary, but I was glad to be headed down, not up.

After the main descent, there was still much downhill, making the last 15 miles to Tolmezzo, my stop for the night, bearable. I didn’t have any reason to stop in Tolmezzo, other than it was the right distance from Bovec.

I hadn’t reserved a place to stay as I wasn’t sure if I’d get there. So, I hit the Tourist Information office to search for lodging. While I was there, I discovered that the Giro d’Italia was headed there for a major stage start on Sunday (it was now Thursday). While rooms were tight, I found a place not far away.

Finally, I was back where I could communicate with the locals. I talked with the Italian-only B&B owner about various, somewhat understood, topics, cleaned up, hit the Eurostar (major supermarket) just down the way, and went out for dinner. It took me quite a while to find a place to eat, where I had a tasty pesto meal.

The rest of my well laid plans had been upset by the schedule of the Giro, which would spend two days in this area. I had arranged a couchsurf near Cortina In the eastern Dolomites. It was 2 days hard riding (6000 foot passes both days) to get there and finding accommodation was greatly complicated by the Giro.

After a fair amount of searching around, I discovered a bus that ran through Tolmezzo and over the main road (closed on Sunday to host the Giro) to a town a day’s ride from Cortina. It left at 9am the next morning and I figured I’d try it and if that didn’t work, then attempt to ride it.

I was at the bus station about 8:30 the next morning. The ticket agent informed me that the bus I wanted didn’t start running until July. Though, there was another one that went to another, nearby, town. But, since I hadn’t reserved a space for my bicycle, it would be up to the driver. While I waited for the bus, I got to talking to two other passengers.

When the bus arrived, the driver initially said no dice on the bike. I was crestfallen as the weight of a third, and harder, day of climbing loomed. But, the driver, seeing my dilemma and with the encouragement of my new friends, opened up the other side of the bus’ baggage bins and we all helped to shove the bike in. With that, I was on the bus!

The drive up the mountain was full of very impressive views of the mountains. I moved from side to side in the bus taking photos. The idea of racing up this road gave me even more respect for the Giro riders.

I was dropped off in Santa Stefano di Cadore a bit before 11 in the sun. I was well into the Dolomites with stunning river, valley, and peak views. The problem now was a 3 mile long tunnel just past Santo Stefano that I had to deal with. I knew from previous research that there was a Vecchia Strada (old road) bypass that was no longer maintained but rideable, according to several people I’d contacted.

I was quickly at the tunnel, only to discover cement blocks barring the way. The blocks were set in such a way that getting the bike around it involved great effort and a bit of risk. There was no other routing option, so I managed to get all my stuff around the barrier, though not before hanging onto a pipe with one hand and swinging around it with my bike dangling from the other. Slipping meant a long slide down the cliff.

Once on the road, which was covered with a few rock slides, large boulders and open holes, it was easy riding along a deep river gorge. I was worried that when I got to the other side I wouldn’t be able to get out. This worry stayed with me until I saw a rider coming in the other direction who said it was no problem.

After about 4 miles, I came to the barrier on the other side, easily slide past it and was on my way. There wasn’t all that much traffic on the main road after the tunnel. The natural vistas were everywhere: waterfalls, rivers, snow-streaked rocky tops, cute alpine villages, long valleys. I took dozens of photos, many of the same view just a bit down the road.

After stopping to eat, I met Frank and Peter, two Aussie bike tourists, about my age, who had flown to Iran, done some touring, and were now riding around Italy and then France. We talked bike touring for 20 minutes by the side of the road, discovering that we’d ridden in several of the same places. It is always great to meet other bike tourists who are looking to talk.

We rode off together, but I soon stopped for a photo as they continued on. I’d see them again at the next town, waving as I rode by. At the end of town, I saw them gaining on me, feeling like the guy at the head of a bike race slowly being caught by the peloton!

We rode together, talking and avoiding cars. Peter is a winemaker in Victoria and Frank, a carpenter in Perth. We joked, encouraged each other, and pedaled along. Peter wanted to stop and eat, but Frank wanted to push on, so he and I rode away.

It started raining and we pulled under an awning where we shared a bit of food while waiting. He rode off when the rain stopped, after I discovered my destination was just down the road.

I rode up to Andrea’s place in Venas di Cadore just as he and 3 others pulled up. We shoved my bike in the garage and walked into his 3 story townhouse. The four are 3 Europeans and one American. There is Toma, a serious Finnish Physicist with a man bun, Shauna, an American from Kansas who works for a circus with refugees, Kirsten, an Austrian architect, and Andrea, an Italian who works for the UN, I think. All but Shauna live in Vienna. She lives in Berlin. With the exception of Andrea, I’m old enough to be all their fathers!

They were tired from their day’s exertions and we sat around a bit resting. We eventually went to the store, got food for dinner, breakfast and snacks, returned, made dinner and eventually all went to sleep.

Today, Andrea, Shauna, and Toma went hiking and via ferrata (hiking attached to a cable in the wall), while Kirsten, who doesn’t feel well, stayed in. I walked across the valley, over the river (with a 50 foot waterfall, of course), to a village on the other side. There were 10% grades in both sides of the river and I was glad to be walking not riding.

The views were sensational in all directions. The top peaks were clouded over much of the time and I took dozens of photos in an attempt to try and capture the unique beauty of the Dolomites. I returned about noon, ate, napped, and wrote this email.

It’s about 100 miles from here to Venice. Tomorrow the road is closed due to the Giro, which I hope to see flash by. My plan is to spend another day here and then ride toward Venice on Monday.
No matter how long the hill, if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get up to the top.

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by 123 » Mon May 21, 2018 12:37 am

Truly a great narrative. Great details and description. I'm exhausted reading it.
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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by pezblanco » Mon May 21, 2018 8:13 am

Thank you for the great descriptions!

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by White Coat Investor » Mon May 21, 2018 8:29 am

Raybo wrote:
Mon May 21, 2018 12:01 am
I’m sitting in a fabulous house in the Dolomite town of Venas di Cadore, about 15 miles south of Cortina in Northern Italy. There are stunning, bare rock peaks in every direction, though often obscured by clouds.
That area is so pretty this time of year. Deserted too as its between seasons.
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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by yukonjack » Mon May 21, 2018 8:39 am

Always enjoy reading your adventures Raybo. Stay safe.

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Raybo
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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Raybo » Mon May 21, 2018 11:01 am

White Coat Investor wrote:
Mon May 21, 2018 8:29 am
That area is so pretty this time of year. Deserted too as its between seasons.
It rained a bit everyday. There was some sun, but mostly clouds. Rarely got a view of peaks clear of clouds. More than one local said early September was the best time to visit.

It is deserted, unless the Giro d’Italia is riding through!
No matter how long the hill, if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get up to the top.

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by wenzee » Mon May 21, 2018 12:54 pm

How can we view pictures of this lovely trip?

Best,

Wenzee

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by duckcalldan » Mon May 21, 2018 5:32 pm

One day, Ray. One day, I’ll join you.

A question: any regrets about your Bike Friday compared to a normal-sized touring bike with 700c (or 650) knobby tires? Something lightweight but able to handle gravel, dirt, tarmac and your gear?

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Duckie » Mon May 21, 2018 5:59 pm

wenzee wrote:How can we view pictures of this lovely trip?
When he gets done he'll probably post the details with pictures on his Bike Touring Journals page.

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Carefreeap » Mon May 21, 2018 6:34 pm

Wonderful descriptions Raybo!

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Raybo
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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Raybo » Mon May 21, 2018 11:32 pm

wenzee wrote:
Mon May 21, 2018 12:54 pm
How can we view pictures of this lovely trip?

Best,

Wenzee
Middle of June.
No matter how long the hill, if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get up to the top.

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Raybo » Mon May 21, 2018 11:40 pm

duckcalldan wrote:
Mon May 21, 2018 5:32 pm
One day, Ray. One day, I’ll join you.

A question: any regrets about your Bike Friday compared to a normal-sized touring bike with 700c (or 650) knobby tires? Something lightweight but able to handle gravel, dirt, tarmac and your gear?
This is my second month long tour on the Bike Friday. I find It easy to ride and the same as a “normal” bike. Frankly, I think it climbs a bit easier than my 700c bike. I’ve also set it up with higher handlebars, so it is a bit more relaxed to ride. All in all, I like it and don’t even notice the small tires, anymore.

I have 2 main complaints. First, due to a balancing load in a front bag, the front wheel is constantly rotating when the bike is stopped. This makes taking photos while sitting on the bike a bother. Second, with all the weight in two rear panniers, the bike is heavily rear loaded. This makes moving the bike (scooting it to lean against a tree, for example) awkward.

Otherwise, I like riding it. Especially the fact that I can mount the bike by stepping over the low main tube.
No matter how long the hill, if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get up to the top.

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by White Coat Investor » Tue May 22, 2018 12:35 am

Raybo wrote:
Mon May 21, 2018 11:01 am
White Coat Investor wrote:
Mon May 21, 2018 8:29 am
That area is so pretty this time of year. Deserted too as its between seasons.
It rained a bit everyday. There was some sun, but mostly clouds. Rarely got a view of peaks clear of clouds. More than one local said early September was the best time to visit.

It is deserted, unless the Giro d’Italia is riding through!
Did you go see the Zoncolan?
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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by livesoft » Tue May 22, 2018 8:01 am

Great write-up / story and memories! Thanks for sharing. Also thanks to the Giro to make you pause in the middle and give you time to write this up and post it here. :)

Does your wife ever meet you anywhere during such travels? I am trying to do some solo "adventure" trips that my wife would not want to do with me, but to get her to meet sometimes while she does other sightseeing on her own itinerary in the same region.

All the best to both of you!
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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Raybo » Thu May 24, 2018 2:52 am

White Coat Investor wrote:
Tue May 22, 2018 12:35 am
Did you go see the Zoncolan?
I didn’t. The Giro stage that started on Saturday (day before one in Tolmezzo) ended there. I went west, instead.
No matter how long the hill, if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get up to the top.

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Re: Riding from the mountains of Slovenia to the mountains of Italy

Post by Raybo » Thu May 24, 2018 3:17 am

livesoft wrote:
Tue May 22, 2018 8:01 am
Great write-up / story and memories! Thanks for sharing. Also thanks to the Giro to make you pause in the middle and give you time to write this up and post it here. :)

Does your wife ever meet you anywhere during such travels? I am trying to do some solo "adventure" trips that my wife would not want to do with me, but to get her to meet sometimes while she does other sightseeing on her own itinerary in the same region.

All the best to both of you!
Thanks for the good wishes.

My wife and I have done several variations of travel. She has come with me at the start, sightsaw or worked, went elsewhere while I started biking. She has met me at the end, as well, which has us both visiting Venice at the moment. In theory, she could meet me in the middle, but we haven’t done that.

Last year, I rode from Amsterdam to Passau by myself, met my wife and 2 friends there, and we all took a boat and bike ride down and back along the Danube. This worked for all combined. Generally, when I bike In Europe, my wife goes to England and visits family, which is a bit different than in your situation.
No matter how long the hill, if you keep pedaling you'll eventually get up to the top.

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